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Flickr User Frost Museum
Flickr User Frost Museum

A Treasure Trove of Parasitic Wasps

Flickr User Frost Museum
Flickr User Frost Museum

For the last three decades, scientists in the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG), a roughly 1000-square-kilometer chunk of forest in northwestern Costa Rica, have been inventorying and rearing hundreds of thousands of caterpillars. With the help of local apprentices, they comb the forests for the critters, pluck them from plants and the ground, and then string them up in plastic bags in a barn. Then, they watch and wait while the caterpillars pupate to see what emerges. 

Sometimes, it’s a moth or a butterfly, exactly as it should be. Other times, though, it’s a wasp whose mother laid her eggs in the caterpillar before the researchers put it in its bag. After hatching, the wasp larvae devour their host from the inside out and emerge from the corpse. 

There are plenty of parasitoid wasps like this out there (some of which we’ve covered before), and last month the researchers announced that there are plenty more where those came from. Their latest paper describes and names almost 200 new species of the wasp genus Apanteles—which until recently had only three known species! Clearly, the team says, scientists have been underestimating the diversity of parasitoid wasps and, as more and more parts of the world are as well-cataloged as the ACG, the total number of species could be mind-boggling. 

Each of these new wasps is only about as long as a fingernail, and most of them are very choosy when it comes to their caterpillar hosts. The researchers found that around 90 percent of the species parasitize just a few (or even a single) type of caterpillar, suggesting the subfamily they come from is more specialized than anyone knew. 

As I wrote at The Week, parasites are not a very popular conservation cause, but many of them are ecologically important. By turning caterpillars and other insects into zombies and living nurseries and then killing them, Apanteles and other parasitoid wasps provide free pest control. In some parts of the world, people release swarms of them to control problem insects. The researchers in the ACG hope that by getting local people involved in their studies, they can show Costa Ricans the value of these wasps and have more allies for protecting their habitat. As a thank you to their many local lay assistants in the field, the team named many of the new species after them—resulting in beautifully tongue-twisting Latin-Latin American hybrid names like Apanteles jorgehernandezi, A. monicachavarriae, A. raulsolorsanoi, A. robertoespinozai, and A. yolandarojasae. 

Primary photo courtesy the Frost Museum flickr page; cc.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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